Cover for guest invitations to Stafford Creek Buddha Fest.

Washington Prison Sanghas
Host Buddhist Celebrations

Once a year Buddhist celebrations take place at a number of correctional facilities in Washington State. Each religious group in prison is allowed one event per year for a festive gathering marking their spirituality and for Buddhist inmates these have become known as Buddha Fests or Buddhist Banquets. Organized by the inmates themselves, these occasions bring diverse Buddhist traditions together.

Ven. Thubten Chodron and Ven. Thubten Tarpa from Sravasti Abbey attended the Airway Heights Buddhist Fest on May 17th in Spokane, along with Zen teacher Rowan Conrad of the Order of Interbeing (Missoula.) Sangha members from sponsoring group Chagdud Gonpa Padma Ling of Spokane also participated, as did others from the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order of the Columbia Basin.

The men decided quite a few years ago that they would structure the celebration as a "Tsog" (Tibetan: “feast, celebration”) and it has evolved into an almost day long practice session. There is time for a tea ceremony, walking meditation, and Dharma talks by visiting teachers. Members of the prison sangha share readings, skits, testimonials, prayers, artwork, and music. Participants also constructed a mandala--out of colored rice instead of sand. Over the years guests have come not only from the Spokane area but from Seattle, Portland, Olympia, the Tri-cities, and as far away as Vermont.

Ven. Thubten believes this group to be not only one of the strongest but also one of the oldest inmate sanghas in Washington. According to early documentation of the Airway Heights group, Lama Yöntän from Chagdud Gonpa was requested to provide Buddhist support for an inmate there in the mid 1990’s. Another inmate who helped organize their very first Buddhist banquet confirms it took place in May 1996.

Ven. Thubten adds, "I was especially touched by one man's story of how the Dharma helped him to work through the depression and suicidal thinking that set in after his arrest and imprisonment. He offered his story to the others, saying that he wanted them to know that he was there for them if they ever had similar difficulties."

Dharma practitioners at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell also held a Buddha Day celebration in early May. According to volunteer Chris Murray, “The program varies from year to year, but typically includes bringing in special visitors in addition to the regular volunteers. Having someone new make a special trip to attend the celebration with them is a treat for the inmates. The food is always pizza fresh from the local pizzeria in Connell, plus lots of fresh fruit.” Inmates share Dharma stories, poems, and readings and decorate a mandala that was a gift to them from the Airway Heights sangha.


Monroe Twin Rivers Unit's Buddhist Celebration 2008 program cover. Graphic layout was designed by three inmates as part of their computer study through Edmonds Community College.

On June 4th, Eido Frances Carney Roshi from the Olympia Zen Center was a guest at a well-attended Stafford Creek Buddha Fest. Genko Kathy Blackman supported a small gathering July 13th at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) Minimum Security Unit and even managed to attend Twin Rivers’ event on the same day! Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) is another facility within MCC and guests included supporters from the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, Chagdud Gonpa Amrita and Dzogchen Community Seattle. Kobai Scott Whitney of Plum Mountain Refuge sent a letter to be read in his absence.

At the TRU celebration the men gave a surprise announcement. Only two days prior they voted to name their Buddhist sangha "Snow Lotus." Lama Padma of Chagdud Gonpa Amrita was delighted with the choice of name as it represented blossoming in unlikely places – a fitting analogy. Many men offered moving accounts of their forays into Dharma and described how Buddhist principles such as cause and effect and interdependence speak perfectly to their growing understanding of their condition. Most importantly, many gave positive reasons for on-going diligence in Dharma practice because of the benefit they are experiencing.

Lama Padma led prayers for a Buddha Fest at Washington State Reformatory Unit at MCC on July 20th. Ven. Santidhammo Bhikku of Wat Atammayatarana was also invited as a special guest but was prevented from participating by a last minute administrative glitch. Joining many family members at the celebration were sponsors and guests from One Drop Zendo, Chagdud Gonpa Amrita and the Dzogchen Community. One man read his Dharma poems while another sang a song he composed.

McNeil Island Dharma practitioners will celebrate their Buddhist banquet on August 23rd. For more than seven years sponsors Steve Heck and Dan Peterson have guided McNeil's inmate sangha and have built a strong reputation for bringing many different teachers and teachings to the men. Peterson, together with other Shambhala colleagues, also leads programs within the Oregon prison system.

Often prison Dharma practitioners comment that this is their only time in the year where they can speak to outside guests and share a rare moment of kindness and happiness. The Buddha Fests are times when prison inmate sanghas can speak about their Dharma practice and how Buddhism has effected positive change. These testimonials inspire all who attend. It is an enriching experience of bearing witness to the men's spiritual growth, their enthusiasm for a viable and workable path, and their example of making deep change for the better against strong odds.

A conference on“Northwest Prison Dharma” will take place November 14-16 at Camp Bishop, just outside Shelton, Washington. Sponsored by Plum Mountain Refuge and the Northwest Dharma Association, the conference will offer a networking opportunity for those already participating in prison Dharma work as well as an introduction for those interested in doing so. Special emphasis will be placed on skills needed to be a religious volunteer or chaplain in the prison setting and in “transition” work with releasing inmates.

For more information about the November conference, email or call 360-590-4535.

Contributors: Caterina De Re, Judy Patterson, Chris Murray.